Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · March 4, 2020

PITTSBURGH—Terry Rolin’s life savings of $82,373 will finally be returned to him, nearly six months after it was wrongfully seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from his daughter Rebecca Brown as she traveled through Pittsburgh International Airport to her home in Boston. Without offering any apology for the harm caused by confiscating Terry’s life savings for six months, the DEA informed the Institute for Justice (IJ) via letter that: “After further review, a decision has been made to return the property.”

In January, Terry and Rebecca teamed up with IJ to file a lawsuit against the DEA and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) seeking return of the money and an end to the agencies’ unconstitutional and unlawful practice of seizing cash from air travelers without probable cause.  Because Terry and Rebecca’s suit includes class action claims and an individual claim for damages against the DEA agent who wrongly seized the money, it will continue to be litigated in federal court.

“I’m grateful that my father’s life savings will soon be returned, but the money never should have been taken in the first place.  I can’t believe they’re not even offering an apology for the stress and pain they caused for my family,” said Rebecca. “Without this money, my father was forced to put off necessary dental work—causing him serious pain for several months—and could not make critical repairs to his truck. The government shouldn’t be able to take money for no reason, hang on to it for months and then give it back like nothing happened, which is why the lawsuit we filed will continue. No one should be forced to go through this nightmare.”

Terry and Rebecca’s story attracted international attention to the government’s civil forfeiture practices. Flying with any amount of cash is completely legal, yet TSA routinely seizes luggage that contains “large” amounts of cash. After being alerted by TSA, federal law enforcement agents then often seize the cash without probable cause and without charging anyone with a crime. Property owners then find themselves in the upside-down world of civil forfeiture where they are not entitled to legal representation and the standard of proof needed for the government to keep the property is lower than in a criminal case.

“We are glad that Terry will get his money back, but it is shameful that it takes a lawsuit and an international outcry for the federal government to do the right thing,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban. “We know that this routinely happens to other travelers at airports across the United States. Terry and Rebecca are going to fight on until TSA and DEA end their unconstitutional and unlawful practices of seizing cash from air travelers without probable cause or reasonable suspicion.”

Terry, 79, is a retired railroad engineer born and raised in Pittsburgh. For many years, he followed his parents’ habit of hiding money in the basement of their home. When Terry moved out of his family home and into a smaller apartment, he became uncomfortable with keeping a large amount of cash. Last summer, when his daughter Rebecca was home for a family event, Terry asked her to take the money and open a new joint bank account.

With an early flight on Monday, August 26, 2019, Rebecca did not have time to visit a bank in Pittsburgh and chose to carry the money with her on the way to Boston. Worried about flying with a large amount of cash, Rebecca checked online and found out that flying with any amount of money domestically is completely legal. However, during security screening, TSA agents took her carry-on bag aside and made her wait to be questioned by Pennsylvania State Troopers.

While she was eventually allowed to continue to her gate with the money, she was approached again by a trooper and a DEA agent before boarding her flight. After interrogating Rebecca and calling Terry, the DEA agent seized the money without charging either Terry or Rebecca with a crime. Months later, Terry and Rebecca received notice that the DEA intended to permanently keep the money. Rebecca reached out to IJ, a non-profit public interest law firm with experience litigating civil forfeiture cases nationwide, which agreed to take on her case pro bono.